Community action helps low-income families bring homes up to standard


A consortium in Ghent’s Dampoort neighbourhood arranges financing for families whose houses don’t meet basic safety and energy standards

Home improvements

There’s a popular belief that owning a house is synonymous with being well-off. But that picture is misleading.

In Flanders, 120,000 homeowners are what’s known as “emergency buyers”: families who couldn’t find a suitable rental property and so bought a house that doesn’t meet minimum safety, health or energy standards. And they lack the means to renovate.

Selling the house to people who have the means when the house becomes uninhabitable is often how the story ends. In Ghent’s Dampoort neighbourhood, a consortium of social organisations have joined forces with the government in an attempt to turn the tide.

Thanks to their innovative renovation scheme, homeowners now have access to a budget to get their home fixed, helping them stay where they are. It’s a scheme deemed so cutting-edge that the consortium was one of the 10 nominations for Radical Innovators, a nationwide poll that puts the spotlight on innovations for a better world and a better climate.  

The Belgian and Flemish governments pride themselves on the nation’s home ownership rate: More than 70% of the population live in a privately owned house. But a close look at the numbers can curb all that optimism.

Moving out

Not only is a high ownership rate not a sign of success – nations with higher poverty rates like Bulgaria and Romania have much higher ownership rates – recent research also shows that almost 9% of homeowners in Flanders live in run-down houses and can’t afford to renovate.

In total, 350,000 houses in Flanders – including rental properties – need significant work before they can be considered safe, healthy and energy-efficient.

What’s more, most families who own sub-standard quality homes aren’t eligible for the government’s myriad tax breaks, renewal projects, renovation or energy subsidies, as these all require financial commitment from the owner. 

We knew we had to come up with something for those who already have a home but urgently need to renovate

- Natan Hertogen

In other words: Those with more means are the ones getting subsidies. The poor miss out, and eventually they have to move out.

In the neighbourhood around Ghent’s Dampoort train station, three organisations got together under the name Community Land Trust Gent (CLT), and succeeded in breaking the deadlock. Their pilot project, Dampoort KnapT OP (Dampoort Makeover), helps families lift their homes to minimal standards and beyond.

“CLT thinks of new housing concepts to benefit the underprivileged,” says Natan Hertogen of Samenlevingsopbouw Gent, one of the three member organisations. “For instance, in the Muide neighbourhood we are building new social housing that’s set to be finished in 2021. But as well as building for those who needed a home, we knew we had to come up with something for those who already have a home but urgently need to renovate.” 

More than renovation

They decided to ask social welfare agency OCMW if funds could be provided on an advance basis. That is: OCMW would provide enough funding for renovations, but if the owner sells the house, buys a second house or dies, the money will be reimbursed to OCMW.

“This way, the funds are not a subsidy but an advance without a term,” Hertogen explains. “It could be paid back after three years, after 30 years or even more.” In 2014, OCMW Ghent agreed and provided advances of €30,000 each for the first 10 families.

The next question was which families were most in need. And would they be willing or able to have their homes taken over by workers for weeks, or even months?

Ann Van Hoof at Sivi, the local organisation for the alleviation of poverty, led the recruitment and selection procedure. “We chose one block in the Dampoort neighbourhood where we already knew there was a high rate of emergency buyers and a high number of old houses in danger,” she says. “This way, the project could bring about much more than mere renovation. Creating a community feeling between residents was almost as important to us.”

Echoes from the neighbourhood

After the recruitment phase – starting with posting leaflets in the targeted streets and door-to-door visits – came the selection phase, in which all the families who wanted to take part were graded on criteria such as the urgency of renovation and their income.

Next, architects and engineers from Domus Mundi, a social architectural firm and the third partner in CLT, made the plans for renovation with the residents while Sivi assisted in each phase.

“Many of our participants were shocked to find out there were so many others nearby with the same problems,” says Van Hoof. “Once we’d started, we led monthly meetings in which all participants came together to share experiences about the renovation and learn from each other.” 

Most of these were families with little experience of renovation who needed all the help they could get

- Ann Van Hoof

During community meetings, art project Echo’s uit de Wijk (Echoes from the Neighbourhood) was called in to make an artistic rendering of the project. “Participants were given disposable cameras and asked to shoot scenes of daily life in their homes,” Hertogen explains.

Some of the results were enlarged and exhibited on the outer walls of an empty lot in the block, says Hertogen. “This way, we made what happened behind closed doors visible to everyone, which also gave a boost to the feeling of community.”

Both the community meetings and art project helped ease the stress caused by the renovations, but each of the participating families was also assisted individually by Sivi staff. “From getting all the paperwork done and gathering the necessary signatures to finding a temporary place when the demolition and construction started,” Van Hoof explains. “Most of these were families with little experience of renovation who needed all the help they could get.” 

Easing the stress

All the families made it to the end of the process. Selection started in 2014 and construction the year after. Ten previously dilapidated houses are now safe, healthy and energy-efficient homes.

Because of the project’s success, Ghent’s OCMW decided to provide five more families with renovation funds, while the city’s councillors for urban planning and the environment are each contributing to three extra funds.

In the meantime, Samenlevingsopbouw Gent is trying to get regular support for the scheme from the government of Flanders, while social organisations around the country are looking into ways to copy it in their own provinces or cities. 

The winners are…

CLT’s success and innovation have earned the consortium a spot among the 10 nominees of Radical Innovators, a popular poll on the most radical initiatives for a better world and a better climate. It’s run by the Sociale InnovatieFabriek, a think tank supporting social entrepreneurship, and a professional jury chose the laureates from 322 candidates.

Three winners were named: the jury winner, the popular winner and the climate winner, the last one decided by a journalist from De Standaard. Despite their efforts to help emergency buyers, energy-efficiency and social cohesion, the CLT consortium wasn’t among the winners.

The jury and popular award both went to De Landgenoten (The Countrymen), a foundation of farmers and citizens that uses crowdfunding and donations to buy farm land. This land is then rented out to organic farmers. If the farmer quits, the cultivated land is rented to a successor. 

Rising You(th) is the answer to both unemployment among refugees and to companies’ need for professionals with climbing experience

Cooperative DuCoop, meanwhile, won the climate award for its innovative energy concept for the new buildings at Ghent’s docks. Waste water from toilets in the apartments will be mixed with shredded biological waste from the kitchens to ferment in the cellars and produce biogas to heat the apartments.

Other laureates include CitizenLab, an online platform that gives citizens a chance to share their opinion on municipal policies. Rising You(th), an initiative providing free climbing courses for refugees, is the answer to both unemployment among refugees and to companies’ need for professionals with climbing experience.

The remaining five projects include Laminaria, founded by two cousins who developed the world’s first turbine that uses sea waves to produce energy. BIGH turned the roofs of the slaughterhouses in Anderlecht, Brussels, into fertile farm land, and in Mol, Antwerp province, residents at a care home can now virtually bike around their old neighbourhoods thanks to a project called Activ84Health.

At Konekt in Ghent, people with mental disabilities have the chance to receive tailor-made education and find a mainstream job, while Dorpspunt Beveren is a neighbourhood shop and meeting place run by people with disabilities. 

Photos: Top courtesy Echo's uit de Wijk; centre Bart Gabriel